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Pray without ceasing.
—1 Thessalonians 5:17
“Prayer is the primary work of the moral and religious life,” wrote St. Theophan the Recluse (1815-1894). Theophan, once a bishop who retreated into the Russian wilderness to live as a hermit, spent hours each day giving spiritual advice in letters. This spiritual “Dear Abby” was particularly known for his writings on prayer.
“The root of this life is a free and conscious relationship with God, which then directs everything,” he continued. “It is the practice of prayer that expresses this free and conscious attitude towards God, just as the social contacts of daily life express our moral attitude towards our neighbor, and our ascetic struggles and spiritual efforts express our moral attitude towards ourselves. Our prayer reflects our attitude towards God, and our attitude to God is reflected in prayer.”
Theophan argues that prayer is a barometer of our relationship with God. It is the essence of our spiritual life. Communication with God, just like communication with others, forms the foundation of our relationships.
“And since this attitude is not identical in different people, so the kind of prayer is not identical either. He who is careless of salvation has a different attitude to God from him who has abandoned sin and is zealous for virtue, but has not yet entered within himself, and works for the Lord only outwardly. Finally, he who has entered within and carries the Lord in himself, standing before him, has yet another attitude. The first man is negligent in prayer just as he is negligent in life; and he prays in church and at home merely according to the established custom, without attention or feeling. The second man reads many prayers and goes often to church, trying at the same time to keep his attention from wandering and to experience feelings in accordance with the prayers which are read, although he is very seldom successful. The third man, wholly concentrated within, stands with his mind before God, and prays to him in his heart without distraction, without long verbal prayers, even when standing for a long time at prayer in his home or at church.”
The first of these three people is too preoccupied with himself to allow his faith to take hold of his life. The second tries hard, probably appears to be pious, but falls short. The third succeeds.
“Take away oral prayer from the second, and you will take away all prayer from him; impose oral prayer on the third and you will extinguish prayer in him by the wind of many words. For every rank of person, and every degree of drawing near to God, has its own prayer and its own rules.”
Of what rank are our prayers?
“The root of this life is a free and conscious relationship with God, which then directs everything.”
Quotes from The Art of Prayer—An Orthodox Anthology by Igumen Chariton of Valamo, translated by E. Kadoubovsky & E. M. Palmer, London: Faber & Faber, 1966, pp. 61-62.